Study Guide to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Study Guide to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Intelligent Education

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Study Guide to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Intelligent Education

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A comprehensive study guide offering in-depth explanation, essay, and test prep for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, widely considered to be the highest achievement of Fitzgerald's career and a contender for the title of the "Great American Novel."

As the quintessential novel of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald's work serves as both an exquisite portrait of the Roaring Twenties in America and a cautionary tale regarding the American Dream. Acclaimed by generations of readers, the novel continues to embody the American spirit and the nation's enduring admiration for self-made success stories. This Bright Notes Study Guide explores the context and history of Fitzgerald's classic work, helping students to thoroughly explore the reasons it has stood the literary test of time. Each Bright Notes Study Guide contains:

- Introductions to the Author and the Work

- Character Summaries

- Plot Guides

- Section and Chapter Overviews

- Test Essay and Study Q&As

The Bright Notes Study Guide series offers an in-depth tour of more than 275 classic works of literature, exploring characters, critical commentary, historical background, plots, and themes. This set of study guides encourages readers to dig deeper in their understanding by including essay questions and answers as well as topics for further research.

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“Rich people,” said Ernest Hemingway, “are poor people with money.” It seemed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, that they were nothing of the sort, and he devoted a good part of his work to proving that “rich people” are indeed “different from you and me.”
That Hemingway insisted upon reducing a complexity to some sort of manageable simplicity was totally characteristic of him both as a person and as a writer. And that Fitzgerald knew, perhaps all too well, that money was a crucial element in American culture, shaped the successes and failures of his work - and of his life.
Like Ernest Hemingway, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in “the provinces” of America: the Midwest. Unlike Hemingway, however (who was profoundly influenced by the great outdoors so much a part of his small-town childhood), Fitzgerald was born in a large city - St. Paul, Minnesota - and remained a “city boy” all his life. His family, moreover, was very much a part of St. Paul “society,” and this too had considerable influence in determining the direction of his art, and the growth of his sensibility.
Perhaps one might say that it was simply a matter of a different sort of wilderness, but one thing is clear: if many of Hemingway’s basic attitudes were shaped by his experiences hunting and fishing in the great North woods, many of Fitzgerald’s basic attitudes were defined by the upper middle-class financial and social position that was his heritage.
Fitzgerald’s maternal grandfather was the St. Paul merchant P. F. McQuillan, a hard-working man with the integrity and “soundness” so characteristic of the middle-merchant group of the area. Although the McQuillan fortune by no means belonged to the foremost rank of St. Paul money, the wholesale grocery business founded by the old man was worth over a million dollars at his death, and the McQuillan will left $250,000 to be shared by Fitzgerald’s mother and the four other McQuillan children: two sisters and two brothers. That the McQuillan name was one of “substance” in St. Paul is indicated by the fact that Fitzgerald’s own activities at Princeton, where he achieved a modest success as both a playwright and athlete, received considerable coverage in the society pages of St. Paul newspapers.
It was primarily due to his mother’s family that Fitzgerald could be described as someone “born into the country club set.” The family’s position in this set, however, was rather ambiguous; neither “aristocrats” nor “nobodies,” they dwelt in a kind of social twilight zone best symbolized by Fitzgerald’s own description of one of the houses in which he lived as a St. Paul teenager: it was, he says, “a house below the average on a street above the average.”
Such a position is hardly conducive to personal security, and perhaps helps explain why F. Scott Fitzgerald, while born into the exclusive “club” of the privileged class, spent a lifetime worrying about his membership - and worrying, too, whether the membership itself was worth the emotional and artistic energy he felt obliged (often in spite of his own better judgment) to expend in order to maintain it.
On his mother’s side, at any rate, Fitzgerald was the inheritor of a tradition in which financial “success” was still defined by a strong awareness of moral solidity, an ethical responsibility, a tradition in which “good” business was directly related rather than irrelevant to good citizenship and social responsibility. It was, indeed, the kind of firmly based ethic referred to by Nick Carroway, narrator of Fitzgerald’s finest work-The Great Gatsby-as he wishes for a world that would “stand at moral attention forever.”
And the nostalgia for such a world was, certainly, to become an important aspect of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rather schizophrenic personal development.
Under the veneer of Princetonian aestheticism and despite his need for a “smart” identity (to be earned by “success”), Fitzgerald, in a very profound sense, remained a moral provincial; and it is precisely this moral “provincialism” - the nostalgia for moral qualities represented by the West and the scorn of the moral vacuum represented by the “East” - which is so basic to the dramatic structure of The Great Gatsby.
Throughout Fitzgerald’s work, indeed, there is a tension between the pursuit of wealth (or an acknowledgment of the power of wealth), and a distrust of the wealth itself when it lacks the support of moral responsibility, and so becomes merely an instrument for the gratification of impulse. As such an instrument, wealth becomes destructive, and the American Dream-which is based on wealth-turns into the American Nightmare, the “Fitzgerald Woman” - with her charm, her parasitism, and her fatal lack of allegiance to anything but sentimental impulse (the gratification of which is made possible by wealth) -emerges as kind of child-Princess of doom, a “Golden Girl” whose very beauty becomes a form of vampirism.
The “solid” tradition of the McQuillans, however, was not part of the background of Fitzgerald’s father-or rather, the tradition was of a different sort, at once more “romantic” and more vaguely defined. For Edward Fitzgerald’s Maryland family could - and did - trace its kinship back to Francis Scott Key; and Edward Fitzgerald was himself something of a Southern gentleman whose manners were far more impressive than was his business acumen. Neither as a corporation executive nor as a broker was he particularly successful, and Fitzgerald’s father remains a shadowy figure in the author’s life.
Shortly after Fitzgerald’s birth, on September 24, 1896, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, and lived for a time in Syracuse. After Edward Fitzgerald lost his job with Procter and Gamble, however, the family returned to St. Paul, and it was in St. Paul that Scott reached his adolescence. By this time both his parents were past fifty. His father seemed to become more “Southern” as it became increasingly obvious that his business career had reached a dead end, and his mother, having lost two previous children, lavished a rather baroque devotion on young Scott. The development of Scott as a “mamma’s boy” was to shape many of his attitudes as an adult-a fact noted by many commentators on Fitzgerald’s life and work.
The only other Fitzgerald child to survive childbirth was a girl, Annabel, but it was Scott who remained the focus of his parents’ attention. Although details of Fitzgerald’s early years in upstate New York are rather sketchy, the final portrait, as Kenneth Eble remarks, is that of “a somewhat pampered and sheltered boy, an occupant of apartments and rented houses, an inheritor of a sense of family superiority without much visible means to support it.”
Back in St. Paul, the young Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy, where he demonstrated a growing affinity for literature. He published a short story in the school magazine, and kept copious journals. Even as an adolescent, however, Scott’s attitude toward literature was ambiguous; writing, indeed, seems to have been merely one method among many for securing social status and “leadership,” and Scott devoted himself with no less enthusiasm to club politics and athletics, not to mention “dancing class,” as a means of achieving the status he so intensely craved even as a boy.
Reviewing his later career at Princeton, commentators have often wondered whether Fitzgerald’s literary career would ever have come into existence had he been more physically suited for a major athletic career, or more emotionally suited for a sustained effort at campus politics. There is considerable justice, certainly, in the charge that for F. Scott Fitzgerald literature was a means rather than an end. Even as a schoolboy he felt no particular sense of vocation in literature, and his later career was to be seriously hampered by the fact that, for various reasons, Fitzgerald was forced to use his work as a key to open doors which otherwise would have remained closed, at least for him.
Such argument, of course, can easily be overstated; one can no more define the actual literature produced by Fitzgerald according to his motives in producing it, than one can define the prose rhythms of a writer like James Joyce through a mere description of his poor eyesight. What Edmund Wilson calls the “Sacred Wound” of the artist simply does not define the essence-or the value-of the art itself; and if the “Sacred Wound” of F. Scott Fitzgerald was a chronic inability to do his work for the sake of the work itself, one might also note that in this respect, as in so many others, his own conflicts represented the conflicts of his time and his culture.
In art, perhaps more than in any other field of human endeavor, personal weakness is no less a resource than is personal strength; the artist, indeed, very often uses his work to redeem the weakness itself-weakness which becomes, in a basic sense, a raw material of the art. It is true, for example, that if Ernest Hemingway had possessed greater social sensitivity and objective intelligence, his work would have been richer; but it is also true that the unique power of his work depended, to a great extent, on the lack of certain qualities which in themselves and in general terms are quite desirable. It would be foolish, after all, to attack Hemingway because he was not Henry James.
By the same token, to accuse Fitzgerald of having lacked certain elements of literary purity found in other writers, is actually to make a retrospective demand that he ought to have been somebody else. That he was not somebody else, is a fact for which readers ought to be thankful. Granted that Fitzgerald’s weaknesses prevented his development along certain lines, they also created his development along others, and this is also true of writers like Hemingway, or Faulkner, or any other individual who sets himself the task of working words into literature. Given Fitzgerald’s personal and social insecurities, one must indeed admit that he could never have written A Farewell to Arms. And given Hemingway’s own fears and preoccupations, he could not have produced books like This Side of Paradise or Tender is the Night, let alone a novel with the unique value of The Great Gatsby.
It is possible, in short, to recognize that Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with social status and “making good” took up much of his energy throughout his career, while also recognizing that the value of his best work is the result of precisely this preoccupation. And if there were certain qualities of adolescence and romance which Fitzgerald in his own way (like Hemingway in his) never outgrew, it was these qualities which provided the raw material for those Fitzgerald works which remain a vital contribution to American literature.
In 1911, Fitzgerald entered a Catholic boarding school in Hackensack, New Jersey-the Newman Academy, at which he spent two years. During this time he visited New York on several occasions, saw several plays, and continued his own apprenticeship in literature. He wrote several dramas, one of which was produced at school with Fitzgerald himself playing the lead: that of a very sophisticated “gentleman” burglar. And it was also during this time that Fitzgerald became aware of the glowing, romantic, and-for him-destructive power of sex, a power idealized into melodramatic sentiment, darkened by adolescent “disillusions,” and surrounded by fears and distractions which he never completely outgrew.
It was Ginerva King, a wealthy Chicago girl, who shaped his desire for - and fear of - the sort of “enchanting,” careless, and essentially superficial female who was to reappear so often in his stories and novels: women like Rosalind in This Side of Paradise, or Gloria in Tender is the Night, or Daisy in The Great Gatsby-women who, despite their physical charm, are characterized by a profound emotional frigidity based partially upon a need for romantic posture, and partially upon a sort of instinctive calculation which leads them to use and exploit, and-when necessary-to discard their men rather than love them completely.
Fitzgerald actually met Ginerva after h...